Amtrak Rant

As a missionary, I’ve traveled across America and other countries through various means of transportation. Obviously, flying is a more attractive option for longer distances. Because I usually don’t sleep well in moving vehicles, I try to avoid overnight trips. Nevertheless, I’ll sometimes take the long bus or train rides depending on logistical issues and fare costs.

Train travel can be an enjoyable experience especially when there’s beautiful scenery to look at. Last year, I used Amtrak to go from Portland, Oregon to my birthplace of Fargo, North Dakota. That route allowed me to see Glacier National Park for the first time. However, the only Amtrak routes going through Fargo arrive in the middle of the night. That presented problems when I wanted a friend or family member to take me to the train station or pick me up there.

There are other reasons why train travel is not so great in America. Some cities such as Nashville, Montgomery, Columbus, Des Moines, and Tulsa don’t have Amtrak stations. The Amtrak route network is also very minimal. Let’s say I want to take a train from Tampa to Dallas. I’d have to make a three-day trip going all the way up to Washington, DC and then over to Chicago before heading down south again. Amtrak used to have a route near the Gulf Coast until it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina and hasn’t yet been restored.

Too many government regulations make simple things like train travel more frustrating than they need to be. In January 2004, I went from Richmond, Virginia to Tampa by train. I had found a “Rail Sale” special on Amtrak’s website for only $37. Initially, I felt uneasy about buying the ticket perceiving the Lord told me to wait. I went ahead and bought the ticket not sensing any danger plus I didn’t want to risk losing that special price. There was a divine reason why I should’ve waited. 

Partially due to bad weather up north, my train arrived in Richmond over three hours late and the ride lasted an extra day! Federal law prohibits train employees from working 12 consecutive hours. Three times my train sat still on the tracks for hours, as we waited for different crews to be brought in. A couple of weeks later, I took a train from Tampa back to Richmond. That train arrived at my destination two hours late.

Then this past Thursday, I prepared for what ended up being another delayed train ride from Richmond to Tampa. Throughout the day while in Ashland, I monitored my train status to verify it would be on time at 9:34 p.m. It wasn’t until arriving at the Richmond station an hour in advance that my train’s estimated time of arrival had been delayed an hour. So my driver from Calvary Campground dropped me off at a nearby McDonald’s. While drinking coffee, witnessing to other customers, and doing stuff online with my laptop, I continued monitoring my train status. The ETA kept getting postponed even more. By 11:00, I had to leave McDonald’s because they were closing. So I walked back to the Amtrak station and found out my train was delayed another hour. It finally arrived around 1:15 a.m., almost four hours past its original ETA.

Although I got a requested window seat, the conductor assigned an overweight woman to sit next to me. Her big butt took up part of my seat making it harder for me to relax and get any sleep. I privately went to an Amtrak employee asking for a different seat. I was told that would be taken care of after the next stop but they didn’t follow through on that. A couple of hours later, I went back to the lounge car where the Amtrak employees had gathered. They suggested I hang out there temporarily. Although I had seen many open seats in other cars, I was told they would be taken by customers boarding in other cities. After a stop in Charleston, the two seats in front of my assigned seat had opened up. I moved there for the duration of my trip, finally arriving in Tampa at 9:00 p.m., over five hours past my scheduled arrival time.

One might ask, “Why not get a sleeper car?” Private rooms on Amtrak are very expensive. Even for one night, they can cost several hundred dollars. I’d rather spend that money on a hotel room for a week without the shakiness. Once I took a train from Perpignan, France to Madrid, Spain that included a bed for me to sleep on. I hardly got any rest because of the constant vibrations.

At least in Europe, the trains I rode were almost always punctual. In contrast, Amtrak isn’t reliable when you need to get somewhere on time. The tracks they use aren’t even their own. They are rented from other railroad companies. Often Amtrak trains have to stop to let other trains pass by.

Years ago, an American railroad company popularized the slogan, “Next time take the train.” Back then, train travel in the U. S. was far more efficient. But until I get my own car again, I’ll probably take a plane instead. At least the airlines offer compensation when flights are delayed too long. Right now, the only reason I’d consider using Amtrak again is they have a more generous luggage policy than the airlines. Except in selected cities, passengers are allowed to check two bags for free plus bring two carry-ons and two personal items. In recent years, I’ve brought along extra bags filled with gospel tracts and Bibles. In the future, I might have them shipped instead.

I’d heard people talk about wanting to see America by train. I suggest making alternative plans unless Amtrak gets their act together or a better train company starts up.

“Avoid it, do not travel on it; Turn away from it and pass on.” - Proverbs 4:15

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